Selected Criticism

"Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City" (1860)
Mullins, Maire
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally published in the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, by Thayer and Eldridge, Boston, this poem was included in the "Enfans d'Adam" poem cluster and designated simply as number 9. The present title was affixed in 1867, when the title of this cluster was changed to "Children of Adam."

The poem records a visit to a crowded city and a woman "casually met there," the memory of whom takes precedence over all else that occurred or happened to the speaker. Lines 2, 3, and 4 describe the time that they spent together, absorbed in each other's presence. The last three lines of the poem shift to the present moment, when the memory of the "populous" city, with all its "shows, architecture, customs, traditions," is again displaced by the woman. These lines, etched from memory, recast how the two spent their time together: they "wander," "love," "separate," and hold hands. In the poem's last line the woman's face, "with silent lips sad and tremulous," appears "close beside" the speaker.

Early biographers read the poem as a record of Whitman's liaison with a woman in New Orleans. Whitman, accompanied by his younger brother Jeff, had spent three months there (February-May 1848) working as the chief editor of the Crescent.

The original manuscript of the poem, however, reveals a significant change in the text. Instead of "a woman I casually met there who detain'd me for love of me" in line 2, Whitman had originally written "the man who wandered with me, there, for love of me." In line 4, in place of "that woman who passionately clung to me" Whitman had written "one rude and ignorant man." Whitman may have made these changes because of the poem's inclusion in the "Children of Adam" poem cluster, or out of an attempt to disguise the homoerotic import of the lines.

The poem in its final form reflects the theme of the "Children of Adam" poem cluster: amativeness, a term Whitman borrowed from phrenology to signify the love of woman and man. Its length reflects the short, almost lyric form many of the poems in this cluster take. In its recreation of the mood of an intense, brief love affair, the poem looks forward to the themes of the "Calamus" cluster.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.


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